Zach Sullivan on coming out in ice hockey and his Manchester Storm team-mates' support
It was the Sunday morning of Pride Weekend in the Elite League when Zach Sullivan posted to social media to say: "I'm bisexual." He tells Jay Forster, a fellow hockey player who's LGBT+, why he's still smiling
By Jay Forster
Last Updated: 23/02/20 9:01pm
In January, Sky Sports shared the story of goaltender Jay Forster in the build-up to the Elite League's first Pride Weekend. Jay, who is trans, plays for amateur club Flintshire Phantoms in Deeside in north Wales, and often travels up to Altrincham to watch his nearest Elite League club, Manchester Storm.
On Pride Weekend itself, Storm defenceman Zach Sullivan posted to his social media accounts to share that he is bisexual, adding that keeping this a secret in the past had resulted in mental health struggles.
After a huge show of support from across British ice hockey - and not least from the Storm - Zach spoke to Jay about coming out publicly, the welcome 'chirping' of his team-mates, and his advice for anyone else who's LGBT+ and who might need a little guidance...
Manchester Storm were preparing to host Dundee Stars in the Elite League on January 26 when Zach Sullivan sent out a tweet and an Instagram post on the Sunday morning of the game.
"With this being the first ever EIHL #PrideWeekend I feel now is the best time to speak about what I have known for many years," wrote Zach in the screengrabbed note.
"I have battled with mental health problems over this issue and with the support, understanding and acceptance from my family, friends and team-mates, I finally feel ready to say; I'm bisexual."
He also posted a picture of himself with Storm team-mates Cam Critchlow and Jared Aulin, the trio wearing hockey jerseys with a Pride rainbow design - the same shirts they would wear later that day against the Stars.
He added: "I have never been more proud to wear a jersey before, especially one that celebrates all gender identities and sexualities."
The social media posts quickly went viral on both platforms, with an outpouring of support from hockey fans across the globe, and fans of other sports who recognised the significance of Zach sharing his truth - both for him as a person and for the wider LGBT+ community.
When we chat later, I ask Zach how he prepared for that moment of hitting 'Share'.
"I spoke to two of my best friends from my previous club, Glasgow Clan - Josh Grieveson and Craig Peacock," he explains.
"I told them what I was planning and their response was 'that's awesome!' I also spoke to Tyson [Fawcett, forward for the Storm] and that was about it.
"Then it got to the Saturday before Pride Night, when we were playing Sheffield Steelers. I was like 'I can't not tell my team-mates'. I spoke to my coaches before the game too and they were both really supportive. Unfortunately, we lost to the Steelers but I stood up after the game and said 'I just want to say something, it's nothing to do with hockey, but I'm gonna [come out] tomorrow.'"
The team gave him a standing ovation in the locker room after his announcement.
He says his decision to coincide his coming out with the Elite League's first Pride Weekend - and the Storm's third Pride Night - was spur of the moment. It's been somewhat of a whirlwind few months for the young defenceman, who told me he only really came to terms with his sexuality in November, two months before tweeting about it on that Sunday morning. So why now?
"I think it was that I had finally gotten to a place where I was comfortable," says Zach. "I kind of looked back over my journey and I saw times where I wasn't comfortable, times when I needed a role model.
"I thought that if I could say this now - that I'm comfortable and confident in myself - then hopefully it would reach the right people and they'd get the confidence too, not just to come out but to be comfortable in themselves."
'Chirping' and camaraderie
That's the message Zach has been sending repeatedly. He's been making sure it's understood that he's doing this for a reason - the people that need to hear it. He's not coming out publicly for himself, he's coming out for the kids that need to hear what he needed to hear when he was a teenager.
As someone whose coming out journey was inspired by someone else, Zach's message spoke to me. If it hadn't been for Harrison Browne, then of the NWHL's Buffalo Beauts, and his decision to tell the world he's trans, then maybe I would still be in the closet, playing women's hockey and dreaming about what might have been. Zach is for young gay and bi kids what Browne was for me, and that's how he wanted it.
It took Zach nine years to come out to himself, and he knows that other people might take three years, or six, or 18. It doesn't matter. Everyone's journey is different, he says, and he's not here to tell people that they need to come out. There's a recent trend in some sections of the media encouraging closeted athletes to come out for the dubiously called 'good of the sport', and Zach says it's unrealistic for someone to do that.
"I was lucky enough to have friends and family that I knew would support me no matter what. And I know some people aren't lucky enough to have that. You've got to take your own time with things, and that's how it is."
It's hard to imagine a more ideal coming out, even though Zach dislikes the term. According to Zach, things went 'back to normal' within a couple of hours of the tweet. He turned up at the rink to prep for the game, and it was business as usual. "That was kind of the perfect response. I'm not looking for any preferential treatment or any different behaviour from the guys. It's just, 'OK, cool, let's get on with it, we're playing hockey now.'"
In my experience, the hockey community is unlike any other. It's a culture built on affectionate headbutts, butt pats, and punches. Hockey players frequently engage in friendly 'chirping', a form of heckling that's often a sign of being part of a team. It's often called a brotherhood, and players will fight like brothers, but will be the first ones to stand up and defend one another. One notable 'chirp' from my own coming out was one of my then team-mates, now a forward for the NIHL 2 Deeside Dragons, telling me that I still needed to remember to close my five-hole (for the uninitiated, that's the space between the goaltender's legs).
"They've been a bit wary about what they can say so far," Zach tells me. "I said to them, 'I don't care, I know it's from a good place'. Tyson chirped me today so it's all back to normal in that regard."
I asked Jared Aulin, who was in the picture Zach posted to Twitter and Instagram, whether he had seen much difference in his team-mate since then.
"He smiles more," says Jared. "He's kind of a new person, in the sense that he was always a good guy before, right, but now he looks so much more comfortable and happy and I think he doesn't feel like he's isolated anymore.
"It's infectious. I smile when I see him right away because I know he's happy."
Jared adds that the Storm made a concentrated effort to treat Zach exactly the same, though there have been some small changes. "We threw 'It's Raining Men' up on the speakers after Pride Night, so yeah, we were chirping him pretty good!"
Without his Storm family around him, Zach may not have come out at all. He talks at length about how supportive the team has been, and how hard they've worked to make sure he knows that they accept him, especially Tyson, who is one of his housemates and his closest pal on the team.
Tyson makes sure to still 'razz him' and is careful to not treat Zach any differently. He mentions how happy he is for his friend, and happy that Sullivan trusted him and the rest of the team enough to share his truth.
Spell in the spotlight
Zach's announcement has gained attention all over the world. In a conversation with The Outfield Podcast, he mentioned that he'd heard from people all over the UK, the US, Canada, and countries in Europe. He's been interviewed by various parts of the British media, and even got a shout-out on popular hockey podcast 'Spittin' Chiclets', hosted by ex-NHL players Paul Bissonette and Ryan Whitney. Hockey is bigger in Britain than most people think, but it's nothing compared to the UK's biggest sport - football.
"I understand why hockey doesn't make [waves]," says Zach. "Football is a multi-million-pound industry, same with cricket and rugby. Hockey's fighting against that and trying to make a name for itself, but I think things like this will hopefully put the sport more on the map.
"You know, hockey's a great sport too. There are lots of people in this country that play hockey, and lots of good hockey players. Some of the [team] are fantastic hockey players. If that's a side effect of this, then that's great."
Don't be rushed or pressured into anything. Eventually, if you feel like you want to come out, then do it.
Zach Sullivan (picture: Victoria Schofield)
Never in Zach's wildest dreams did he think his announcement would get this kind of traction. He's known in the sport to be media-shy and in his own words, he used to struggle to put together a 30-second interview for Clan TV, the in-house channel of his previous club. Now his words have been heard by people all over the world.
However, Zach is adamant that the spotlight shouldn't remain on him for long. "It wasn't about me, it was about helping other people, and I saw a unique opportunity," he insists. "You know, we play this sport for 15 years professionally and then we're kind of forgotten and a new generation comes through, so it was an opportunity to actually make good of my slightly raised platform and put a message out which I passionately believe in, which is it doesn't matter about your sexuality, or gender identity. If you can play a sport, then you can play a sport and that should be all that matters."
Even more daunting than all the interviews, he says, is the invitation he received to Surrey Pride, where he's been asked to speak this summer. Chester Pride also reached out, but unfortunately, the two Prides are on the same day (August 8), so local LGBT hockey fans may have to wait for Manchester Pride at the end of August to celebrate with him.
So, coming out was perfect, in Zach's own words. He feels better, he's happier, his team have noticed a huge difference in how he acts, on and off the ice. What if he'd done it sooner?
"I wasn't in a place myself where I could have done it earlier," he says, after thinking about it. "My mental health has suffered over it and I worried about losing the respect of my team-mates, my friends and family.
"I'd only really become comfortable in November of this year. But I think, looking over what's happening now, it would have made a big impact, regardless of when I'd done it."
One final question from me for Zach was something I was asked recently. If you could say one thing to young, queer hockey fans or players, what would it be?
"I'd say it doesn't matter and that's not a case of 'I don't want to hear about it', I mean it doesn't matter, you're still as much of a human as anyone else.
"It doesn't make you any less of a man, any less of a woman - it's who you are. We don't choose who we fall in love with. Take your time on your journey if you're not comfortable, then surround yourself with people that don't care about that kind of thing.
"Don't be rushed or pressured into anything. Eventually, if you feel like you want to come out, then do it. Don't feel like you need to come out. It's a private journey, and it's all done on your own time. It's one of the few luxuries you have. It's your journey, it's no one else's."
Zach smiles. Jared said it was infectious. It's easy to see what he meant.
Sky Sports supports Stonewall's Rainbow Laces campaign for LGBT+ inclusion in sport, as a member of Team Pride. If you're interested in sharing your Rainbow Laces story, get in touch with us.